ONE-MAN FOCUS GROUP MAY 13, 2013
For the past century or so, a certain snack food has been the lucky beneficiary of one of history's most powerful product placements. That snack food would be Cracker Jack, which is featured by name in the baseball anthem "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." You know the line: "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack." This alone is enough to guarantee Cracker Jack's availability at concession stands throughout major and minor league baseball. And you'd think that would be enough to sustain a brand, right?
Apparently not. Cracker Jack's parent company, Frito-Lay, has just come out with a new spin-off product line called Cracker Jack'D, which features flavors like Spicy Pizzeria, Cheddar BBQ, and Cocoa Java Power Bites (yes, really). Think of it this way: Cracker Jack'D is to the original Cracker Jack as, say, Metallica is to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
And that's precisely the idea, at least according to Frito-Lay marketing veep Dave Skena, who issued a statement saying that the old Cracker Jack "isn't relevant" to younger consumers anymore. It wasn't immediately clear how the pronouncements of a corporate marketing suit would be relevant to younger consumers, but that's another question for another day.
With its sleek, black packaging and transparently "extreme" (or maybe just "xtreme") marketing slant, Cracker Jack'D is a self-parody that's almost too easy to make fun of. Its life cycle, which should play out over the course of the next year or so, will probably look something like this: an annoyingly intense but gratifyingly short ad campaign; a cringe-worthy cross-promotion with a wildly inappropriate brand (Red Bull, perhaps?); an embarrassing tweet from one of the rap stars who were brought in to endorse the product, leading to a hastily issued corporate apology; and then a quick plummet into the black hole of product failures. By 2016 nobody will even remember Cracker Jack'D existed; by 2018 it should start showing up in "What Were They Thinking?" slideshows.
But that's not to say that the original Cracker Jack, which will still be available, couldn't use a reboot. There are at least three major problems:
1. The spokescharacter. A kid in a sailor suit just doesn't cut it anymore. Update him so he's wearing a football jersey, or just a T-shirt, or something that feels less anachronistic. (Memo to Dave Skena: This doesn't mean you have to dress him in a backwards baseball cap, mirror shades, and baggy jeans. And you don't have to change his dog to a pit bull either.)
2. The free prize. Once upon a time, every box of Cracker Jack came with a decoder ring, or a temporary tattoo, or some other cool toy. Now, thanks to cost-cutting and all those regulations about choking hazards, your typical Cracker Jack "prize" is a slip of paper with some lame-o joke printed on it. Frito-Lay says it's going to upgrade the prizes so they'll have digital codes that can be used to play little video games on an Android app, but that's missing the point. An app code has no "Collect ’em all!" resonance. Come up with some genuine prizes that kids will enjoy or else just scrap the whole prize thing altogether.
3. The peanuts. After Borden sold Cracker Jack to Frito-Lay in 1997, the product's peanut-to-popcorn ratio began tilting heavily toward the latter. It has now reached the point where you'll find that slip of paper with the lame-o joke before you find a freaking peanut in a pack of Cracker Jack. Frito-Lay says it plans to restore the peanuts to their proper level, to which a hungry nation responds, "What took you so long?"
See, it's not so hard. A little cosmetic updating, a restoration of a key ingredient -- simple. And much better than some dubious attempt to reinvent the product as a lifestyle accessory. Now just set aside a little payola budget to make sure every baseball team keeps playing that anthem during the seventh inning stretch and you're all set.